PFC Walter Stitt: Tank Gunner in WWII
Private First Class Walter Stitt talks about what it was like serving inside a tank during World War II. He served as both a loader and gunner, and survived the destruction of three different tanks he was manning.
To hear more from Stitt, check out his interview with the Clark County Historical Society.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
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Today, we’ll hear from private first class Walter Stitt. Stitt fought in the Invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge as a tank gunner.
When I got into combat, I was 19. In July of that year, then I became 20. I came to France as a replacement, and the first sergeant in E Company came down to the replacement pool and got my records and saw I was a tank gunner, which I guess he needed. And so he came over and interviewed me and said, "okay, you're going to be an E company of the 33rd Armored regiment." And so then I followed along behind the 3rd Armored for a week or so, maybe a little longer. And then when they needed a replacement, he came and got me.
When I went in the tank, I didn't go in as a gunner immediately. I went in as a loader. And so a loader's kind of off at the side of the gun, and he isn't looking outside during combat. He's just taking orders to put in this kind of ammunition and see that there's ammunition for the machine gun and that sort of thing. So I really wasn't looking much at what we were shooting at. I could guess because they were telling me to put armor piercing or to put high explosive, so you knew kind of what they were shooting at, but you never really looked at it. But if things calmed down, then you could get your periscope and look and see what was around.
It was always noisy and the motors were going, the driver usually had the motor revved up good, so if he had to move in a hurry, he was ready to let out the collection go. After a while, you get used to the sounds of the guns banging and going off. The tank that I was in, the first tank that I was in, had an airplane engine, and right behind the turret was a oil cooler, so that whenever the motor was running you had this big fan back there sucking air into the tank to blow through that oil cooler. So it was good and noisy and cramped. And cold in the winter, and hot in the summer. And you banged around inside the tank when it was moving and it wasn't a very comfortable place. No. And you lived in the tank. And usually, you were close enough that if you messed around too much outside you were going to get shot, so you stayed in the tank if you were anyways near the enemy. So you ate your meals in the tank and lived in the tank. Slept in the tank.
We got along well, I thought. We really never had too much fighting among ourselves or arguing among ourselves. It was more, we were all young kids and we all told stories and added our lives one on top of the other. But you tried to tell things that were funny and laugh. And in fact, one time in Stohlberg, which I'm sure you've heard a lot of with your interviews, we sat in a tank for a week and one night just after dark, we heard this banging on the back of the tank, and here was a platoon leader and said, "They can hear you guys laughing all the way to Berlin." But we weren't being shot at. We weren't worried about that. So we just got our stories going with each other. But we usually got along well.
When I started out as a loader, the first gunner that I had to answer to, I didn't like the way he set the headspace on the machine gun. And so the day that he was killed, we had three, what they call ruptured cartridges. So he had to take the gun apart and pull the cartridge out of the thing and then load it up with bullets again. And I kept trying to set the headspace differently and he kept screaming at me to do it his way. And so every time I did his way when I got another ruptured cartridge. But ordinarily there wasn't any arguments among us. We got along well.
Oh yea you had to trust each other, that each guy was going to do his job and do it well. The tank commander, when I got to be a gunner, the tank commander told me what the ranges were, what my target was, that sort of thing. I was really dependent on him because I didn't have much, if it was needed to fire through the telescope, there wasn't much I could see. And then the loader, we all wore earphones because of the noise that we talked about a minute ago. So everybody's working together to do what needed to be done.
In that first tank, it was a loader, and the loader sits on the left hand side. He doesn't have a hatch to get out of. And we'd been working out all day firing. Now, some of the targets I probably looked at, but most of them, I didn't. I just sat there and when they asked for a armor piercing shell, I threw in an armor piercing shell. And when we ran out machine gun bullets, I put in another tape of machine gun bullets. When the barrel got too hot on the machine gun, I took it out and got another one to put in. The bow gunner, or the assistant driver was the one that had the cool barrels that we put in. And so you're busy all the time and you're sitting on a little round chair.
Once in a while, you get a little rest and lean back against the tank. You had all the shells that you'd fired, what was left after they fired, you had a little window there and you'd take and throw those out when you got a few minutes. So you were busy most of the time. And then of course, we all smoked then. So if you got a chance, you lit up a cigarette too.
But then I've been doing this right along, and then all of a sudden, lieutenant came over and ordered the tank commander to get out of the tank, said he was going to take over. And found out later, the lieutenant had already lost two tanks that day, and this was his third tank. And so he got in and we were sitting still, and all of a sudden the platoon sergeant started yelling over the phone, said, "Lieutenant, they're shooting at you. Back up, back up." And so when he did, I turned my periscope around and looked, and just as he did, I saw a fireball go by. And then the sergeant got on him again, said, "Lieutenant, back up, back up." And I looked and he just was paralyzed. And he reached over and he grabbed his mic button and pushed the button and said, "Driver back up" and bang, just like that was hit. And the shell hit right in front of the gunner and killed the gunner and the tank commander both. And the tank, of course, leaps up in the air, gets black for a minute, it rattles your brains. You're just kind of stunned for a minute. And then I said to myself, we're hit. And I look, and of course, and for me to get out from where I am, I have to get underneath the cannon and out between these two people. And when I looked, the gunner had fallen back and the tank commander had fallen on top of him. And I reached up, clear up into the guy's guts, trying to pull him apart. And I couldn't get them. They were just wedged. So I dropped back down on the floor and looked, and I saw a daylight where the driver had gotten out. So I dove out the turret into the driver's seat, dove out over the side of the tank, and just as I did, the tank got hit again. And then that time it exploded because they hit gas or ammunition or whatever.
And I hit on the ground and I held, caught myself this way because I went first and I had a shoulder that kept coming out of joint. And I jumped up, pulled the shoulder back in joint. Oh it hurt. And I started to run and I snagged my foot on a piece of barb wire fence and went down again. And of course I caught myself and knocked the shoulder out of joint, pulled it back up again. I found this foxhole that wasn't very deep and got into that. And then I realized I was wounded. So because the gun had turned the shrapnel down and I got it in the legs. It was not serious wounds, but a lot of scratches. And so I went up to a light tank that was there and said, "Hand me a bandage." And the guy said, "Come up and get it." So I climbed up the side of the tank and the guy reached the bandage out to me. And as I'm climbing up and getting back down, all of a sudden there's a splatter of bullets go up the side of the tank. And I realized some German was shooting at me with what they called a burp gun, has a real funny burp, burp, burp.
So I looked around and here's this German underneath a bunch of bushes down there with his gun. And I yelled up to the light tank commander and I said "That guy that's got that burp gun's under those bushes." And he swung that little 37 around like that and boom. And I took care of that one. But then the medics came by. I got back in the foxhole. The medics came by and said, "Can you walk?" And I said, "Yes." And he said, "Run back through that hedge." So I did. And they took me on back to a evacuation station and patched up my leg, gave me that traditional tetanus shot that I had to have. And I laid down, took it easy for that evening. And the next morning I went back to my company. The first sergeant asked me what I was doing there, and I told him my tank had been hit. And he said, was anybody killed? And I told him, yes, the gunner whose name was Rieve had been killed and the tank commander. And the first sergeants got tears in his eyes because he and Rieve had been buddies. They were old army and they'd been boxing buddies for a long time. So he said, "Walter, you just take it easy." And I said, okay. So I found a nice soft spot to lie down and take it easy. And about 15 minutes later, he is there and he said, Walter, he said, I hate to ask you, but we need another tank. He said, "Could you go back to ordinance and you can be the tank commander and I'll give you a driver and bring one up." So we went back and brought it up. And when I got back up to the company area again, well, he said, "oh, Walter, I hate to say this," but he said "They really need another tank." And so it was the next day, and I'm right back up again, only this time he said I was to go up as a gunner. And so then I went as a gunner.
Well by then, I began to see, you see other tanks that have been knocked out, and you hear stories from other tank crews that have been shot out of tanks. And then the officers, and particularly the platoon sergeant, people who'd been in combat for a while, began to lay more of it on you, how you were going to survive in this war with these tanks that couldn't come face to face with a German tank at all. But the real strategy was to get around the side of them. So if you came up face onto a German tank, some of the crews would fire smoke shells right away and see if they could fog it up for them so they couldn't see it. Sometimes very close enough, they would shoot a white phosphorous shell, a high explosive shell, and if some of that got in, sometimes the German crews would abandon the tank.
But the best thing to do was to have somebody here firing at the tank and the German turrets wouldn't traverse all the way, so they had to turn the tank to take another shot from the side. So when they turned the tank, then somebody would come up on this side, and the idea was to keep working up on them until somebody got a good shot that did them in. But if you shot right at them, oftentimes you could just see the shell just bounce right off.
The difference was that our tank, the muzzle velocity in our tank was something like 2,700 feet per second, where theirs was like 3,900 feet per second. And so our shell had an arch to it where theirs just went straight and they could penetrate our armor with no trouble at all, where most of our shots head on released would bank off.
You don't want to look like a coward. You're scared to death, but you're not going to back off and say, "Oh, I'm not going to go." There were people that shot themselves in the foot to keep from doing that. But there was that, it got built into you that this is what you were going to do and you were going to see it through one way or another. And so I got back into another tank, and we lasted another couple of months, and then we stopped for, oh, almost a month. And then around the 1st of November, we were ready to jump off again and they had big orientations, told us what everybody was going to do, and a German officer had defected. And he said, "Now when you go down through this field, there's a minefield there." And he said, they've laid it out with wire so that it looks like little garden patches, and then there'll be a path, and then another little garden patch. He said run over the wires, because he said, there are no mines in there. He said the mines are all in the path. So that morning when we started out and going down through this field, and I'm watching where the tank commander's directing the driver, and he started lining up on the path. And so I grabbed my mic and I said to the tank commander, I said, "That German officer said that we should run over the wires." And he screamed back at me, said, I'm the tank commander. And I said, okay. So we went right into the path and got into it a little ways, and all of a sudden, boom, and the thing just reared up in the air and it took all the track and wheels off of one side of the tank. Nobody was hurt, just stunned for a minute. And of course, we weren't going to be able to fight after that.
There's another story that's not particularly related to tanks that goes with that, but they told you over and over again in basic training and later on when the tank got into a minefield, if you got into a minefield, to get out of the back of the tank and walk back the tracks, because it'd already been there. But my tank driver jumped out right out the front. He was scared and dropped right down beside the front wheel. And I came around the back and looked to see where he was, and when I saw him, I said, "Whatever you do, don't move." He said, "What's, what's, what's the matter?" I said, "Look down by your foot", and here's his prong sticking up. He just missed what they called a Bouncing Betsy. They'll jump up about three feet and then explode, and the Germans filtered with glass and any kind of scrap metal they could find. So it just would really tear up with all the small scrap if he got hit. So I told him, get up on the tank, and he did, and he climbed back along the side of the tank, got in the tracks and took off. And that was my second tank.
Later on, since I didn't have a tank, I walked around the next day or so up this hill, and our artillery had killed a lot of German soldiers up on that hill when we got ready to jump off. And I went up and there was a anti-tank gun on the hill, and I got down and looked through the sites and it was laid right on my tank. If they hadn't killed those people up there, they'd have gotten my tank from the side.
Then the third tank that I lost, this was back during the bulge, and when we started out that morning we had a crew of infantry, a squad of infantry, and they had only one of them that'd ever been in combat before. And that was a platoon sergeant and just got started that morning and he got hit. So we had eight kids, six or eight kids walking along with the tank who had never been in combat, and all of a sudden we're into this town and they're getting lots of small arms, fire rifle, fire machine, gun fire. So they get behind the tank, and I don't blame them a bit because they were out in the open otherwise. And we got into town and they were, a couple of them get out on the side of the tank. We're walking along, and all of a sudden a German stood up with one of the Panzerfaust, the bazooka, and took a shot at me. And he missed the tank, but when it exploded, it got some of these infantrymen, and instead of shooting him, they stood there and holler "There he is, there he is." And so my tank commander gave me orders and I started traversing the gun. I just got sight of the guy into my periscope before I could fire. He stood up and fired the second one, and it lobbed in and hit on the top of the tank, killed the tank commander instantly. And he had his hands up like this and when it hit him and killed him, he smacked his hands down like this, hit me in the middle of the back, drove me into the metal and knocked the wind out of me. So I didn't know whether I was really hurt or not for a minute there. And then he fell on my back and then slumped down onto the floor.
So without him, we bailed out of the tank and there was a building there, and we went in there and took these infantrymen in there too and patched each other up. The ones who were wounded. I got hit in the head because the Lord knew where I could take the biggest hit and not hurt anything. And then I went on back, and that was my last day in combat. I went back to aid station and from there back to a field hospital and they took the shrapnel out of my head. They sent me back up to the company, but I got sick. They sent me back to the hospital again. And when I got to the hospital, they sent me back to the next hospital, and next thing you know, I ended up in England on Livingston service. And that's part of it was because I had the shoulder that kept coming out of joint and they sent me to the Air Force where I had no skills at all and tried to get me to load bombs, but I couldn't even climb up in a plane because when I pushed myself up in the plane, my shoulder came out of joint. So they finally sent me to work in the PX and somebody had to do it. And then when the war was over, they sent me over to manage the enlisted men's beer hall. Terrible duty for a preacher.
Well, that first lieutenant, as I said, he was, well, I guess you'd call shell shocked. I mean, he saw death coming at him or something, and he just couldn't do anything. But I never faulted the leadership. I thought they knew what they were doing. I had a platoon leader later that I particularly liked and got to be good friends with after the war, who was a real go getter. We had a company commander who was wounded several times and eventually got killed. We lost a lot of lieutenants. Most of them were very capable. We only had one that I thought lacked some of that.
You know, keep wondering how much longer it can go on, or am I going to get it tomorrow or what's going to happen? Everybody was frightened, everybody was scared, but you went ahead and did what you had to do. The thing I think that made it for worse was that we had good training, basic training and advanced training, and we went over these things until we moaned and groaned about why are we doing this again? But then when the time came that you need to do something, you were trained to do it, and you just did it automatically. And I think that helped.
The hardest thing I had to do, if I can throw this in, was to shoot somebody. That's just entirely foreign to the way you've been raised is to shoot and kill somebody. And so the first few times as you step on that trigger, knowing that you're really trying to kill somebody was really difficult. And fortunately in a tank, a lot of your shots were just, you shot at somebody you couldn't see. But there were other occasions when you could. And I had one occasion when we set for hours during the bulge and just shot men coming out of the woods and just sprayed them with machine guns. And it's hard to do, but after you've been in combat for a while, you see other men killed, you begin to get the feeling it's going to be me or them. And if it's got to be that way, it's going to be them and not me.
One of the men that you interviewed. Aurio Pierro. Heck of a nice guy. He and I, he was in a light tank and I was in a medium and our two tanks were side by sides. This is during the bulge. And I told you we shot these fellas with machine guns and of course he had the same machine gun as we did, 30 caliber. And these Germans kept coming like Japanese Kamikaze troops or something, and we'd just sprayed them and then they'd jump up and run and we'd spray them again. They'd jump up and run. We'd spray again. They were some of Hitler's very best SS troopers and Aurio and I happened to go back, oh, it was at least 50 years later to the same area. And he got one of the villagers there and said, after the battle was over and the Germans were gone and he went up on that field to get the bodies, he said, how many bodies did you find? And the guy said, 125. And it's just hard to believe that you would sit there and shoot 125 people, but it's the way it went.
And I think, getting back to officers, I think that was a good deal the inspiration too. They could tell you, "Okay, fellas, come on. We had done it before. We're going to do it again. Let's go". And you got to have somebody leading you that way. We had good sergeants too. A lot of them got field commissions. My third tank commander got a field commission. Unfortunately, the day that they came up to give him his field commission, he jumped out the tank and a mortar shell went off fractured his legs, so he never came back to combat again. So I guess he got his officer's rating. But there were some really good sergeants. Our history tells you that with Lafayette Pool and some others that were real go getters. And one of my lieutenants was Clifford Elliot, and a lot's been written about Clifford Elliot. He was a really good tank commander, platoon commander.
Well, they were smart and they figured things out quickly and they could see what their advantage would be in a particular situation. And they were willing to take the advantage and sometimes take the risk in order to get the advantage. And they build a reputation and then people are willing to listen to what they had to say and to follow them. Well with it all, saying they just showed by example.
After I got wounded the second time and came back to the company, the first sergeant came up and said, "Walter, I'm going to send you up again, but this time I want you to be a tank commander." And I said, "I don't want to be a tank commander." And he said, "Well, why not? You'll be a sergeant right away." And I said, "I've been through five tank commanders, said, I want to stay inside the tank. I'll be the gunner." And okay, that's the way you want it. But then as I said before, I never did get back into a tank after that. But the fella who took my place as a gunner and the guy who took my place as a tank commander were killed the next day.
We had a fellow that came in, had arthritis real bad. He was older, he had some draft boards didn't have enough young men, so they drafted older people. And this man was in his early thirties, married, had several children, but whenever he got a chance, he was a bow gunner, he would stand up, open his hatch and stand up because his arthritic knees bothered him so bad and his tank got hit and he got both legs cut off just like that. Those are sad when you see those.
And one of my worst memories was going to an aid station and seeing a young man lying there alongside the path up to the house who was obviously dying. And he would keep looking up at you like he was trying to talk, but he couldn't say anything. And you knew that there wasn't a thing you could do for him, that he was going to be another statistic. Those were the hard ones.
You can't give enough credit to the medics that we had. They were really brave men. They had no gun or anything else. And somebody's shot so that he's going to be exposed to the same thing that the person who's wounded was. The Germans weren't all that good about sparing people with a Red Cross on their helmet either. I think sometimes they used them for targets. They had a tough job and we gave an awful lot of credit and still do.
That was a running argument with the infantry. They'd always come up and say, “Boy, it must be nice to be up there in that all that steel around you.” And I'm out here in a wide open spaces. And then we'd always say, “Well, would you like to be eight foot taller to be a target?” And oh no, I didn't think they'd like that either. But we went back and forth and we took care of each other. There was never any argument between the infantry or the tanks. I never thought I wanted to be an infantryman. No. They were exposed all the time. Their life expectancy was very short.
As Bell Cooper pointed out, Patton had some say in what happened with our tanks and how they were constructed and what we were looking for. And his philosophy was the tanks didn't fight tanks. The tanks were to do something for the infantry to help them out. Didn't work out that way. But the infantry was essential for the tanks. We never wanted to get out and try to fight by ourselves because the Germans were good fighters. They'd get their panzerfaust, their bazookas and just lay there and wait till you came by and shoot you from the side and get you in a hurry. The infantry was good. The reconnaissance troops were good about spotting German tank positions, that sort of thing. If they spotted one, then they'd call us and we'd come up and start banging away to get rid of the German tanks or whatever it was they were having difficulty with.
Once we got that air superiority, from then on it was great because you could call the Air Force and say we got a tank out here if the weather was good and they would come out and bomb it or strafe it or whatever was necessary. They were a big help to us that way. You can't tell distances in one thing, they are very deceiving. And one day our tank was sitting at the edge of a woods and we'd been firing at this house and they'd called for airplane to come in and drop a bomb on it. And when he came in, he came back this way aiming towards our tank, and it looked to me, as I say, the distance is deceiving. It looked to me like he was going to strafe our tank. So I jumped out and we had these identification panels and I stood on the tank and waved the identification panel, but he was bombing the house way out in front of us. It just looked bad, but that was a big help.
And in cold weather as a side effect, we had a big exhaust that blew out all this warm air so the inventory could get behind and warm their hands, and we gave them food or water or anything like that if it got to the case where they needed it. And sometimes they took it where they need it or not. We one time had a case of rations on the back of the tank, and when the days combat was over and we jumped out and looked, it was long gone. And some infantrymen had himself a whole big box of food. But we had good infantry, they were good fighters, and they got the job done. Again, they were trained well.
I think we had a real esprit de corps in the 3rd Armored Division. We were proud of what we did. We prided ourselves on being good fighters and hanging in there. I read an article that the German had translated about one of our battles, and I happened to be in the one he was talking about, and he said they hit these tanks and the crews bailed out. My platoon was going up the row of houses. There were two rows of houses and a road in the middle, and we were going up the road between the houses and another platoon was going up the outside of these in a field. And we didn't realize it, but the Germans were dug in over here on this side, and they hit the first tank in the last tank and knocked them out. And these two in the middle were stuck and they knew it was coming so the crew just bailed out. I mean, there's no sense of staying there and getting killed.
And so this German wrote said, we hit a couple of them and the rest of them just bailed out and ran. And the fellow that sent me this, I said write back and tell that German officer that he didn't tell the rest of the story, that we were right back again the next day with more tanks and the same crews in the new tank. And we went right back where we were before because that's exactly what we did. And I think the 3rd just had that kind of a aspired corps among them. We were just proud of what we did and determined to get the job done. And as you can see, it's stayed with us all these years. I mean, there's been a real camaraderie among us.
Well, you were depending on each other. If I got wounded, I was depending on somebody to get ahold of me and drag me out of where I was and get help for me. And we talked among ourselves and we'd never left anybody behind unless they were dead. If they were wounded, we were going to help them get out. And it was just built into you that somebody was going to do it for you and you were going to do it for them. And we tried to take care of each other that way. And it builds a real bond and stays with you and has all these years.
When I first started going to 3rd Armored Division reunions, there were quite a few guys from my company and oh, we really enjoyed each other's company, but they've all pretty much died off. I think there's only six of us left now and some in California and a couple in Illinois. But they're not able to travel. So I'm, as far as my company is concerned, I'm the only one that comes to these reunions. But then over the years I've met other people and I delight in their company, and so I keep coming.
That was Private First Class Walter Stitt.
If you missed it, make sure to check out the first part of his interview, where he talks about serving on the USS Tennessee during the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Tarawa.
Thanks for listening to Warriors In Their Own Words. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We’re always looking to improve the show.
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Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.
Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.
Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
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